Saturday, November 5, 2011
Ye Aulde Memoir
Another old piece. These stories are distorted by romanticized memory, at times, and others likely remember them differently. I by no means intend to insult any of the real persons that lived through this stuff with a cavalier treatment of tender recollections, or harsh description of personalities or actions. Each of us always did exactly what seemed to be exactly the right things to do at the time. And there survives much, much love, which has grown and developed like it always does, in ways we never see coming.
I'm not putting these old ones up because i'm too lazy to write new. I'll have one of those next--but some of this old stuff fits. Hope you like it.
11 May 2009
One day during the summer of 1980 my brother David was in the hospital at Case Western Reserve University for yet another open-heart surgery. The scene that day was dramatic I suppose, but for our family at the time, it was in many ways just another day. The state of the relationships between us had come to the condition that existed then because each and every incident that had occurred in the history of the Universe had added to that cumulative point. The way it came together then could have been viewed as tragic, I suppose, but we never noticed.
I don’t even remember how I got the news that this particular episode was approaching. David’s surgery that year was one of many—so many, in fact, that by now surgeons and academics had written papers on his congenital condition, and even given it a polysyllabic title. His lead surgeon, a Dr. Ankeny as I recall, had once claimed that he had “learned more from David Bass than fourteen years of medical school.” We four siblings had in effect grown up in the hospital, with the constant potential for death in attendance on a daily basis. Many years would pass between that summer and the moment I decided any of this was applicable to self-reflection, and the sweltering summer afternoon was as present and imminently experiential as any other I lived through during that period.
Our family seemed done that year. I had been out of the picture for over a year. Dad had left soon after, leaving a sour tinge in the air with those remaining, though I never blamed him. When David queued up for one more death-defying, experimental, split-chest open-heart surgery, Dad came back to Cleveland from Florida to put in an obligatory appearance.
Here was a meeting that defied conventional description. Dave, the least guilty of all our immediate family, had been deeply affected by Dad’s exit from the filial stage earlier that year. I hadn’t seen, or even spoken to Dad for well over a year, nor could our interactions prior to then be described as warm and supportive. Outnumbered by angry or indifferent family members, and perhaps less acclimated to hospitals as the rest of us, Dad was way out of his simpler, down-to-earth element.
I showed up unannounced, with glorious southern tart Candy Stone from Mobile, Alabama in tow, she in dirty bare feet, nearly illegal shorts, one of those dangerous eighties tube-tops, and very red eyes. I don’t think Dad spoke more than a half dozen words to me. His eyes told the whole story of uncertainty, pain, and failure. Dave, fresh from surgery, quite literally green, with a repulsive grey crust around his lips and appending to the tubes and what not projecting from several of his orifices, refused to see Dad. Refused to allow him in the room. Dad left unrequited to return to his exile in Florida. I didn’t see him again for many years.
Once, David, following the Dead tour in our Mom’s old family van showing all the effects of the Rust Belt, with his underage Russian girlfriend, his fiddle, and a patchouli oil manufacturing operation, got pulled over in Alabama, for sport. By this time, David was unkempt, smelly, and obviously committing some crime or another. The cops shook him down pretty good, but of course he had no contraband. He has a vice or two, but the heart thing keeps him from excess. He had that young Russian girlfriend, though, and Alabama’s finest figured they could really hang him out to dry, (dang hippie). But she and Dave convince the alpha cop to let them call her mom in New York to confirm that permission had been granted for the road trip and no heinous kidnapping was going on. The mother spoke zero English, but somehow the girlfriend convinced the cop to allow her to translate for her mother. Mother and daughter held a five minute conversation about the mental acuity of Alabama cops, duly translated as an expression of permission, and the travelers were on their way. David drawls this story on stage in his hillbilly persona, fiddle in hand. It’s hilarious.
It seemed to me for a long time that David was the only one of us to escape that little bubble of anti-reality that made up our family life while we siblings were young. Maybe he somehow managed to avoid being trapped in it in the first place, residing only temporarily, with some sort of metaphysical pass associated with potential imminent death. I don’t know, but years later, during one of the high points of my own endeavor, Renaissance Paint and Remodeling, I remember feeling jealous of David. This was a recurring sentiment, and all the more abberant for the fact that my strongest memory of it falls during a visit to Dave’s place in North Carolina that amounted to a just-in-case kind of deal before a heart transplant. Whatever the rationality or fairness of my little envy, (not real envy, mind you, but one of those little personality spikes that one notes and passes through), David is the one of us that got away the least damaged, and has lived his idiosyncratic dream out in full, down to the fine print, with joy.
Mom tells a story about my first day at school. Or maybe the second. I had asked some question that Miss Gardner couldn’t answer, and after day two, came home grousing about how those people were ignorant, and furthermore lazy, since no one had even bothered to look up a response. Mom likes to carry on about how smart her offspring are. She doesn’t usually bring up in public how warped we can be.
Mom, we brothers agree, bequeathed us a legacy of somewhat dubious mental processes. She’s nuts. We all know it. She knows it. Dad knows it. The rest of her family knows it well, and most of them recognize a common bond of familial, brand-name insanity that we all seem to share. I expect this is a more or less common thing among families, but I remain convinced that we are a bit stranger than most, at least in part because of the unique circumstances we lived through.
Back in the day, Mom’s thing was what they call control issues. The dynamic of her issues was so complex I can’t imagine I’ll ever figure it out. Some of her personality came to her by heredity from her mother, whom we call Mo. Much of it developed in that crucible of stress Dave kept heated by his repeated, continuous flirtation with death. Mom, responding to my over-the-top reaction to a pubescent hormonal tsunami, became madly obsessive with minutiae, dividing her time among us brothers and badgering us constantly in a fashion no one can really get unless they have their own experience to compare. I think she and I trapped ourselves in a sort of feedback loop that could have ended no other way.
I was out of the house for good, by the age of fifteen, for all purposes off to lead a life of crime, I suppose. For some years, I lived out my interpretation of the old Kerouac/Kesey/Abbie Hoffman mythos, on the road, in the street, an utterly directionless rebel. A good five or six years passed without more that a word or two passing between Mom and me.
I was nineteen when I came to Colorado Springs. The vague and unformulated manifesto for global revolution I had worked out in my head was on hold, kept in place by a twelve-pack of cheap beer. I had a job as an electrician, and didn’t see any reason to change that, but we actually didn’t do much of anything but work and drink beer that year.
One day Mom called to say Mike, another brother, got himself in trouble again and she expected him to “run away.” I told her to give him my number and I’d let her know when he called. He did just a few days later, and can I come pick him up over on south Circle.
Mike and I spent a couple years engaging in the sort of insanity to which we had become habituated in Cleveland. The reader will require imagination to add flesh to the story here. The statute of limitations may prevent backlash, but I don’t mean to poke at a bees’ nest, and it seems unlikely you might imagine anything more extreme than what actually took place. We weren’t stupid, though, and the business of working for wages, or relying on illicit behavior for advancement just wasn’t good enough, so we formed a construction company and went to work. That proved to be a trap. Maybe an extension of the weird, family trap that all of us have discussed so deeply, without resolution.
Mike and I had it in our minds that the working man’s habit of grousing over how management acts is crap and that if we were going to grouse, we ought to just take the reins ourselves. It turned out we were pretty good, too, in a lot of ways. We worked together for the best part of twenty years, and reached moments of national prominence in our little niche. The whole period was characterized by more bone-crushing stress and absurd, super-human feats. We had little breaks from the madness when we’d crash the business, which we did three times. We were great at getting shit done, but lousy at administration in the final analysis.
Hiring employees in the construction business kept me exposed to the street element to which I had become accustomed. I involved myself in various efforts to assist folks in their low-budget struggles, imagining still that I could somehow change the world. In fact, contrary to Mike’s primary obsession with business success, I figured the whole pursuit as a means to some vague end involving social revolution. For a while a religious experience had me involved with a church effort to “reach out” to the hoodlums that used to cruise Nevada Avenue on Friday and Saturday nights. I even managed to glean an ordination from the Baptists, though now I suspect they’d regret bequeathing me with it. My identification with street folks and the urge to help them rise above conditions has never left me. Actually I’ve worked up the notion that we could all stand to rise above conditions.
Dad. I went even longer without speaking with him than I did with Mom. He dealt with our family’s teen-aged fulguration by folding his hand and striking out on his own. Offered a transfer by his employer, the story goes, he told Mom, “I’d like you to come to Florida with me, but I don’t think I can love you anymore.” No woman in her right mind would go for that deal, and Mom didn't fall for it either. Dad packed his company car and struck out, leaving his all-important nest egg, and everything else, behind. When David was in the hospital again that summer, that’s where Dad came from to visit him.
I had been away, and I don’t recall blaming Dad for his poor dealings with the family. He had been raised in a very old-school, European style, and he simply couldn’t handle our ways. To this day, in spite of Dad’s expression of a taste for “philosophy,” our conversations are often guarded, pregnant with unspoken truths. I still don’t know his philosophy.
Last summer Dad, my youngest brother, and I went to Montana to camp and fish, riding an outfitter’s horses into some of the most pristine wilderness left in the lower forty-eight. I had genuinely hoped to break the communication barrier that stands between us, but we had to settle for hugs and meaningful silences, for the most part. Dad still plays with his cards pressed tightly to his chest, flashing a look of panic if the conversational waters begin to threaten him with submersion. I guess he can’t swim.
Dad’s experience, it seems to me has also been different from the norm, though I’m uncertain that any human being matches that mythical standard. His family, unlike Mom’s, which fought in the Revolution, was barely American. They were proud American citizens, but their traditions came from old Europe, and they still lived communally on the old Bass farm as they had done for a thousand years.
During my childhood, whenever David was out of the hospital, we’d spend weekends at the farm with the scene looking very much like something from an era that had long since passed in this country, all Dad’s siblings and extended family eating together, playing cards, children roaming the grounds like Huck Finn. It was all rather idyllic, truly, and the moment Grandma Bass died and the farm disappeared under a layer of vulgar office towers marked the shift from one childhood to another.
Dad’s life since then became an effort to recreate those years. His brother and sister had never left the farm. Even when his brother Paul married and had a child, he stayed there on Rockside, as the place was known. I think that scene served as an anchor for my Dad, and when he retired, impressively early despite having suffered huge financial setbacks, he bought his own farm, secluded and sylvan, and moved his socially inept brother and sister in with him.
Paul was a very strange dude. Throughout his lifetime he suffered from some sort of condition that caused him to wobble quite a bit and to mumble when he spoke, like a cartoon character. I still have no idea what the actual condition was--it was never discussed in medical terms, and Paul worked, loved, laughed, and lived in a fashion perfectly suited to him. He represented another unusual facet of our lives that never seemed unusual to us, simply because it just had always been what it was. During his declining years, Paul became more and more difficult to live with, his condition developing into a matter that caused him to actually require care, rather than merely one engendering bemusement. He became cantankerous, incontinent, and dangerous to himself, given his refusal to use a cane. Dad actively cared for him, there on the new farm, forty-five minutes from a paved road, until he died a few years ago.
I couldn’t make the funeral, but I spoke to Dad on the phone as he was back in the city making arrangements. I told him I thought his dealings with Paul were among the most impressive and moving things I had ever seen. I still see it that way. The conversation, which lasted no more than ten minutes I guess, may have been the deepest we’ve ever shared.
For the past eight or nine years every Sunday, so long as I’m in town, I give away food we cook up to whomever we can get to come up to the Colorado College campus and sample our fare. Often our guests are homeless or dirt poor, but we’re not so much stipulating low economic clout as a qualifier. We’ll feed anyone. Dick Celeste, the former governor of my home state, Ohio, and once ambassador to India, comes now and then. He’s a friend, and I visit him at his home, during party season at CC. Arlo Guthrie came down to our basement kitchen once--I put him to work washing dishes. Many of the crowd I see every week are chronic though, plagued by demons I surmise to have been born in conditions similar to mine as a youth. I’ve occasionally contemplated the accusation of “enabling” bad behavior that people toss my way once in a while, but many of our regulars, some of whom I’ve known for twenty-five years, are simply never going to approach any sort of productivity. They are simply too extraordinarily damaged, and as the proverb goes, there, but for the grace of God, go I.
The Christian experience I mentioned earlier was a reflection, or maybe an extension, of spiritual drives I always apprehended. I pursued it heartily for a time, beginning my adult involvement with the sort of hands-on charity our Sunday kitchen represents in a Christian context. The Church always felt skewed to me though, and a couple years’ studying of the questions involved convinced me to adopt thinking anathema to most of my Christian friends. The exclusionary thinking shared by many church folk, in turn, began to seem anathema to me.
Something about my family and its ability to weather long, rending forces, becoming over time a stronger entity for all its roiling turbulence, seems to me akin to the aspect of the human condition that produces the wrecked lives that bring folks to visit me on Sunday afternoons. Further spiritual thinking--some would say metaphysical thinking--concerning Chaos and Oneness has encouraged me to feel like the separation between me and the crowd I serve is illusory in some indefinable fashion. When members of our family passed through periods during which we found it necessary to step back from one another, the bonds that hold us together never broke, and the etheric bonds between my soup kitchen crowd and me, and ambassadors or presidents, don’t seem breakable either. We all seem to share certain common struggles, differences arising simply from disparate approaches, variant perspectives. Our family, it turns out was never what we imagined it ought to be, but perhaps something greater, and more viable, after all.
Part of my mission in ditching the construction business for more cerebral and perhaps less lucrative pursuits at an age when many of my peers in the building industry are thinking of golf courses and retirement comes from a belief that the differences in individuals are reconcilable. Feeding people is necessary, but falls short of bridging the apparent expanse between souls. I still want to change the world, even though I understand the futility of such a grandiose notion. Utopians always fail. But I expect that each time some failure becomes apparent, we can learn a little something, and maybe the next day we can fail a little better.
No account of self-examination is ever going to be complete. I won’t be asserting anything about how I’ve come full circle. Our family will never return to the conditions of my childhood. Nor is the new generation my brothers and cousins and I have brought into the world a retread of old lives. I haven’t even touched on my own experiences as head of a new family, but my children live lives vastly different from their forbears, and even though I rather hope they can avoid some of my mistakes, I suspect they’ll be making many of their own. It seems to be in their genes to require hard lessons. But, like my tortured friends in line at CC on Sunday mornings, or those in my circle equally tortured but accustomed to fine linens, whatever they may suffer holds its own value.
We all learn what we must learn. Life is perfectly safe. Its lessons are self-taught, but deep. I genuinely plan to write a real memoir and a family history, for my kids’ sake, but by the time we come full circle, it’s too late to write about it.